Turkish/Pronunciation and Alphabet/Vowel Classifications and Harmony

Pronunciation and Alphabet
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Like Hungarian, Finnish, and the Turkic languages (of which Turkish is a part), the Turkish language makes use of a concept called vowel harmony. The vowels in most, if not all Turkish grammatical constructs are selected depending on the type of vowel that precedes the construct. There are three distinctions that classify Turkish vowels. First they are either rounded or unrounded, reflecting the shape of the lips when speaking them. Second, vowels may be high or low, depending on the position of the tongue. Finally, they may be classified as back or front vowels, based on the placement of the sound in the mouth. The vowel classifications are summarized below.

Front Back
Unrounded Rounded Unrounded Rounded
Low e ö a o
High i ü ı u

Front rounded vowels are phonetically central-front and back unrounded vowels are phonetically central-back. Low vowels are phonetically mid except for /a/, which is wide open.

Vowel harmony edit

Turkish has a two-dimensional, vowel-harmony system. Vowels are characterised by two features, or rules. These rules do not apply to all Turkish words. You should, however, know the rules in order to add suffixes properly, which is based on the vowels in the word.

Backness harmony edit

In short: Front vowels (e, i, ö, ü) are followed by front vowels, back vowels (a, ı, o, u) are followed by back vowels

According to this harmony, if a syllable contains a front vowel, the following syllable should have front vowel, too. And similarly, if a syllable contains a back vowel, the following syllable should have back vowel. Most of the Turkish words follow this rule but there are some exceptions, of course.

  • For example, let's say you want to add in suffix to the word kan. Last syllable of the word contains the vowel a, which is a back vowel. Thus in changes to ın when it is added to the word, because i is a front vowel and ı is the back version of it. For this reason, kan + in should be kanın

Rounding harmony edit

In short: Rounded vowels (o, ö, u, ü) are followed by closed rounded (u, ü) or open unrounded (a, e) vowels, and unrounded vowels (a, e, ı, i) are followed by unrounded vowels.

According to this harmony,

  1. If a syllable contains a, e, ı or i; next syllable should contain a, e, ı or i (unrounded → unrounded)
  2. If a syllable contains o, ö, u or ü; next syllable should contain a, e, u or ü (rounded → open unrounded and close rounded)
  • For example, let's say you want to add di suffix to the verb ol-. ol- contains only one syllable and that syllable contains o, thus the suffix di should change to –du. Because i is front unrounded, its back rounded version is u and this should be used according to the vowel harmony rules. Hence ol- + di should be oldu.

How to change vowels in suffixes according to the vowel harmony rules edit

In Turkish vowels can be,

  • open or closed
  • front or back
  • rounded or unrounded

These properties together determine the vowel. For example, open back unrounded vowel is a, closed front rounded vowel is ü. When changing vowels according to the vowel harmony rules, you change their frontness/backness and roundedness/unroundedness features, not openness/closedness. This feature remains the same. i can change into ı, u or ü but it cannot change into a, ö or o for example.

To sum up,

  • All "i"s in a suffix can change to ı, u or ü according to the rules above. You can find the rule for that as they are written above, but here is an explanation for those who haven't understood these rules clearly, yet. It becomes;
    • ı after a or ı (back-unrounded vowels)
    • u after u or o (back-rounded vowels)
    • ü after ü or ö (front-rounded vowels)
  • All "e"s in a suffix can change to a according to the rules above, it becomes a after (a, ı, o, u). (Where is o and ö? According to the roundedness/unroundedness harmony, rounded vowels may be preceded by a, e, u or ü. It can be observed that as a result of this rule, they can only occur in first syllables.)

So, we can talk about two types of suffixes: e type and i type. "e type" suffixes are twofold, i.e. they have two possible forms. "i type" suffixes are fourfold, they have four possible forms. The convention followed in this book is to refer to suffixes in their e or i forms (dir, di, –me, ecek etc.).

Invariable suffixes edit

There are some suffixes which don't follow the vowel harmony rules. In this book, invariable vowels in suffixes are shown in this color. These suffixes are:

  • –ki
  • –ken
  • –leyin
  • –imtırak
  • –(i)yor

Exceptions to the Vowel Harmony Rules edit

There are some words that originate from other languages, that do not follow the vowel harmony rules. If you are an Arabic speaker, you may determine when this occurs based on its Arabic form, words ending with teh marbutah harmonize with front vowels. (Excepitons like rahat and sanat do exist) If you are not an Arabic speaker, you'll have to memorize these words as you learn them.

  • saat -> saatler (note the e rather than a as would be predicted)

In addition, loanwords ending with a clear l sound also break vowel harmony. These make up the vast majority of loanwords ending with l, so it's easier to memorize them as you go.

  • hâl -> hâli
  • gol -> golü
  • rol -> rolü
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